One of the ancillary benefits of being hosted at Auction Napa Valley are the winery-sponsored dinners that take place during the evenings preceding the big auction event.The food is usually fantastic, the wine is flowing (often a bit too) freely, and it’s hard to beat the locations.
For example, when I attended a few weeks ago, I joined bidders on one evening at Ma(i)sonry in Yountville for dinner and wines provided by Ma(i)sonry and Blackbird Vineyards owner Michael Polenske (where I finally met Blackbird’s winemaker Aaron Pott, whose humorous personality matches exactly what’s been described in the media published about him over the last few years).
The dinners aren’t exactly my scene – the people, food, and beverages are all top-notch, don’t get me wrong, but I’m nowhere near fitting the ascot-wearing-rich-white-guy mold, and while most of the guests are affable, welcoming, and only fit that mold peripherally, I still feel mostly out of place at those things.
So when I showed up for the second dinner on my itinerary, at Nickel & Nickel in Rutherford, I expected to feel the odd-man-out (which I did) but to be welcomed warmly (which I was, by proprietress Beth Nickel), and to be served over-the-top steakhouse food, probably in the cellar (which we were).
What I didn’t expect, though, was to get a sort of masterclass in Napa Valley Cabernet terroir.
Which I did…
Nickel & Nickel is the sister property to Far Niente, and where Far Niente produces high-end Napa Chardonnay and Cabs blended from multiple sources, Nickel & Nickel is focused squarely on producing relatively limited quantities of wines (mostly Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay) from single vineyard sites around the Valley.
I was drinking, not critiquing, and so I’m not offering any “official” reviews of the N&N wines here. What I am offering is some first-hand experience in how well the N&N Cabs reflect the Napa Valley Cabernet terroir of their source sites – an auspicious surprise for me as I was cutting into a piece of rib-eye larger than my head, and trying very hard to avoid what for me would have been a record-setting single-sitting caloric intake (mostly by not eating too many of the tasty onion rings that were each vying with that piece of meat in size and volume).
Since we’ve already unburdened ourselves of the weighty cloak (not superhero cape – I’ looking at you wine critics!) of official critical analysis, I’ll freely admit that I’m not a huge fan personally of all of Nickel & Nickel’s wines, finding their Chardonnays in particular a bit heavy-handed for my tastes (a stylistic choice, to be sure, based on what the fruit demanded; they’re quite clearly well-made) – though let’s be very clear, that preference did not prevent me from drinking them at diner. But the Cabs were different animals altogether for me – juicy, expressive, generous but balanced with well-manifested structural components like acids and tannin (most evidenced by the 2005s we tasted, which came off as still fresh and poised enough to age pretty well from here on out).
Most interesting for me was how textbook the single vineyard N&N Cabs were; they reflected the source areas so well (in terms of what we have come to expect from those sub-areas within Napa Valley) that you could have submitted them as entries in a living gustatory encyclopedia, if such a thing were possible. At one point, for kicks, I closed my eyes and moved the glasses totally out of order so that I could try tasting them “sort of blind” and see if I could correctly ID them. And it was not too difficult to pick them out of a randomized order, even with a slight buzz on and a mildly-fatigued palate after a day of having tasted… a lot of wine.
If you can bankroll it (not easy to do, granted), and if you’re interested in getting a crash-course in what to expect from Napa Valley Cab from the some of the most celebrated sub-areas in the Valley, you’d do well to pick up these wines and perform the taste-test for yourself.
- 2005 Nickel & Nickel Copper Streak Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District – SLDs have a hallmark of being aggressively focused with blackcurrant fruit, a trait that can get a bit too aggressive at times, masking the dried herb aromas that can be the other hallmark of SLD Cabs. Not here, though; this was one of the best wines poured at our dinner, and it offered the focused blackcurrant SLD action but also delivered dried herbs, tomato and tea leaves in spades.
- 2005 Nickel & Nickel Witz End Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford – Everyone likes to talk about “Rutherford dust” but I’ve found far fewer who can actually describe what it is, and there’s evidence to suggest that André Tchelistcheff coined the term to simply refer to the fact that wines from Rutherford should simply taste as though they came from Rutherford land! For me, Rutherford Cabs aren’t as focused as those from SLD or Howell Mountain, but aren’t usually as broad as those from Oakville, either. If there’s “dust” it comes in the form of cocoa notes and a slightly chalky, more rugged quality to the tannins – which the N&N wine had for sure, along with a lovely combo of red and black fruits. But the Rutherford-ness was in its middle-ground between broad and firm, and its balanced presentation and poise.
- 2005 Nickel & Nickel John C. Sullenger Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville and 2005 Nickel & Nickel Rock Cairn vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville– Oakville wines are usually generous, sometimes to a fault, that fault being wines that are too round, too unfocused and even flabby with pruney fruits (and a hell of a lot of them). Both the N&N Oakville Cabs avoided flab-city, and I thought carried a good deal of complexity to go with the generosity of red and black plum and herbs. As soon as these wines hit your mouth, you knew where they came from, if you were paying attention, because they just unrolled like a silk carpet, blanketing every square centimeter of your tongue in a hedonistic way. The Rock Cairn vineyard, I thought, offered a bit more and kept it in check with more structure and balance overall – in fact, it was probably the best-showing wine on the table that night.
- 2005 Nickel & Nickel Vogt Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain – Mountain fruit often makes wine as rugged as any mountaineer ever was, tightly-wound stuff with lip-puckering tannic structure and leather in its youth, and densely-packed dark berry fruit taking years to unfold and soften. This wine was far from being the most tightly-wound Mountain Cab I’ve encountered, but it still had the firm, stiff upper lip that is the clarion call of Howell Mountain Cabernet – so much so that it was (for me, anyway) the most-easily identifiable wine on the table in terms of place of origin. It was also one of my favorites from the dinner overall, because there isn’t anything quite like catching a HM Cab when it decides to start to let its hair down, going from rugged mountain man to slightly-less-rugged-and-somewhat-sexier mountain woman…